Last winter, on a particularly icy day, I decided to take a hiking pole with me as a safety measure. I'd been happy to use it to traverse glaciers in Iceland, so why not use it to traverse snow fields in Toronto? But when I got on the streetcar, I was shocked when six different people offered to give up their seats for me, including one who absolutely insisted that I MUST sit down. Because I must be old.
I put the hiking pole away.
Ashton Applewhite writes about this kind of thing in her new manifesto against ageism — although it has what I think is an inappropriate title, "This Chair Rocks." Because as she notes, older people aren't sick and helpless and rocking in chairs. In fact, they're healthier than ever. "It turns out that over three-quarters of the 'oldest old' — ages eighty-five and up — can go about their everyday activities without any personal assistance."
Applewhite provides an excellent definition of ageism, noting that it doesn't just happen to the old.
Like racism and sexism, ageism is not about how we look. It’s about what people in power want our appearance to mean. Ageism occurs when a group, whether politicians or marketers or employment agencies, uses that power to oppress or exploit or silence or simply ignore people who are much younger or significantly older. We experience ageism any time someone assumes we’re "too old" for something — a task, a relationship, a haircut — instead of finding out who we are and what we're capable of. Or if someone assumes that we're "too young": ageism cuts both ways, and young people experience a lot of it. That’s what's going on when people grumble about lazy Millennials or complain that "kids are like that."
Applewhite challenges a lot of misconceptions about aging, and many of the political truisms, including many that I've written about and ascribed too.
In October 2010, demographer Philip Longman warned of a "'gray tsunami' sweeping the planet." The phrase summons a frankly terrifying vision of a giant wave of old people looming on the horizon, poised to drain the public coffers, swamp the healthcare system, and suck the wealth of future generations out to sea. Journalists jumped on it, and "gray tsunami" has since become widely adopted shorthand for the socioeconomic threat posed by an aging population.
I've never been fond of the tsunami analogy, given that tsunamis are usually deadly, horrible things. Applewhite calls the whole concept "hogwash," suggesting that it's simply a way "to justify further reductions in the role of government in the economy and the curbing of the welfare state." Instead, she reminds us of the trillions of dollars that older people control, and how their spending drives the economy and supports 61 percent of all U.S. jobs. Applewhite also reminds us that all of this pitting of the old against the young, what I have described as inter-generational warfare, is really a mirage, serving political purposes.
Pitting the generations against each other also obscures the key fact that income inequality does not discriminate by age. The wealthiest 1 percent consists of people of all ages, just like the ninety-nine. As leading economists have been arguing for years, growing wealth disparity within different age cohorts (not between them) underlies the shrinking prospects of ordinary Americans.
You can't outrun your age
There's a lot of smart thinking in this book.
I don't mind admitting when I was born (the same year as Applewhite), but I've always seen the activity rings on my Apple Watch or the number of my airline points as proof to myself that I'm younger than my chronological age. In a recent post I noted how proud I was of this. But it's meaningless; as Applewhite notes, "line up a random bunch of seventy-year-olds and it’ll be hard to believe they share a birth year. Since we age at very different rates, it makes a certain sense to reject identifying with our chronological age." It's also wrong, and I'm fooling myself. Applewhite writes:
If I had a nickel for every story I’ve been sent about olders doing the limbo or DJing or skipping rope, I'd be rich. I don't post them because they get plenty of press without my help, and because it reinforces the notion that the older people who deserve admiration are those who can look and behave like younger ones.
The book then gets personal, looking at what happens to your brain and your body as you age. There's more criticism of people like me who think they can out-run or out-row getting old; aging and slowing down are inevitable. However she does reiterate a point that I keep trying to make, that so many of the problems older people have do not, in fact, have anything to do with age.
Some ailments, like Alzheimer’s, spinal stenosis, and arthritis, are indeed age-related. But many of the changes we attribute to age begin in childhood, and are affected by factors like obesity, poor nutrition, environmental conditions, social adversity, and even personality. This makes early intervention critically important, and is why the rising disability rate among younger Americans today, which is linked to complex factors that include obesity and unemployment rates, is cause for alarm.
And in fact, her recommendations for having a better old age are pretty straightforward, and apply to anyone: "Don't smoke; control your weight and blood pressure; eat less sugar and more veggies; exercise regularly; get enough sleep. These behaviors make sense whether or not they lengthen lives. At any age, we can improve our health."
But you can fight for it
Finally, Applewhite calls for a new movement: Occupy Age!
Isn’t it time to put age equality, likewise a matter of civil and human rights, on the agenda? Discrimination on the basis of age is as unacceptable as discrimination on the basis of any other aspect of ourselves that we cannot change.
Younger people might laugh at this, noting that the baby boomers already have most of the money, and all of the government in their pockets and are calling all of the shots. They are already occupying everything. The bigger problem might well be whether they're willing to share any of it. I also believe that taking the Occupy movement's title is cultural appropriation, comparing a movement of the young and the disenfranchised to the wealthiest generation that ever lived.
This is probably my biggest problem with the book, in that it assumes that the ageism faced by older people today will be felt by people like Applewhite or me, who are in the middle of the baby boomer cohort. It sometimes contradicts itself, noting at one point how there will be no "grey tsunami" because we've got all the money and can take care of ourselves, without recognizing that this generation changes everything it touches, simply because of its size. Then she says we should "occupy aging" – don't worry, we already have. We own it.
I've focused on the parts of the book that are my preoccupations, but there are chapters discussing the brain, sex and intimacy, and the older body. I felt that it was probably more relevant to women than to men. I still think "This Chair Rocks!" is a terrible title that might well drive away its audience and that the subtitle, "A manifesto against ageism" is much more representative.
But the book is a fresh, optimistic and positive view about getting older. It has made me rethink a lot of my preconceptions. It's an important book.